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Bob Bennett instills awareness that human rights are 'inalienable' as new director of institute in Coeur d'Alene

By Virginia de Leon

When Bob Bennett talks about human rights, he often speaks of the “inalienable rights” Thomas Jefferson emphasized in the Declaration of Independence.

Bob Bennett
Bob Bennett

“Rights aren’t something you have to earn. You are born with them,” said Bob, the new executive director of North Idaho’s Human Rights Education Institute.

Treating others with respect and dignity is a lesson he tries to impart to others.

As a high school teacher in the 1960s and later as a principal and superintendent, he reached out to students and their families, so learning would be based on relationships beyond as well as within the classroom.  As president of several colleges, including North Idaho College from 1987 to 1997, Bob made a point to listen—especially to those whose voices were never heard.

Now, as leader of the region’s institute that teaches about human rights, he encourages conversation among people to promote equality through education.

He is convinced that the way to make a difference in this world is through education.

As HREI director, Bob is currently reaching out to youth to showcase diversity and human rights in a way that encompasses music, art, sports and other everyday topics.

This winter, the HREI is focusing on racial and gender equity in high school and college athletics.

As part of that program, the institute sponsored an essay contest, asking high school and college students to write about how sports changed or affected their attitudes toward diversity.  The HREI asked younger students to participate in a poster contest, creating an image “celebrating participation in activities free of racial, gender and other bias.”

For its Martin Luther King Jr. celebration in January, Bob and several volunteers put together an exhibit called “It’s About Time,” featuring the photographs, medals, jerseys, cleats and other items of a diverse group of athletes from the region and country.

The HREI also organized school assemblies at Coeur d’Alene and Lake City high schools, as well as a student summit with Josh Culbreath, bronze medalist in the 400-meter hurdles during the 1956 Olympics, along with other athletes of color.

In February, the institute will bring together female coaches, athletes and leaders for a summit called, “It’s Taken a Long Time, Baby … and We’re Not There Yet!”   Area students will be invited to take part in a contest discussing how gender equity in sports influenced their lives.

Future exhibits and discussions will focus on such topics as art, music and the environment.

Bob plans to have more summits and school assemblies, as well as brown-bag lunches and community forums.  He also hopes to involve more volunteers and organizations—including churches, corporations and community groups.

“There are many ways to look at our attempt to live together harmoniously,” Bob said. “I want to create an atmosphere where people will feel comfortable talking about the things they might have been too scared or embarrassed to talk about before.  It’s important for us to have these conversations.”

The institute in downtown Coeur d’Alene is the educational arm of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations—a group of community leaders who banded together in 1981 in response to the then-growing presence of the Aryan Nations.

For nearly three decades, neo-Nazis and their leader, the late Richard Butler, tarnished the region’s image by building a 20-acre compound for racists in Hayden, Idaho.  To combat their hate and bigotry, the grassroots task force helped establish anti-harassment legislation in Idaho.

Their efforts were recognized in 1987 when the City of Coeur d’Alene received the Raoul Wallenberg Civic Award.  A year later, the task force started the Human Rights Education Institute to promote diversity, justice and human rights in North Idaho and beyond.

 After the Aryan Nations lost a lawsuit that bankrupted Butler and led to the compound’s closure in 2000, the Human Rights Education Institute received a $1 million grant from the Massachusetts-based Gregory Carr Institute.

Organizers used the money to renovate the former Union Pacific Railroad sub-station near Coeur d’Alene City Park, turning the run-down building into a center dedicated to educating the world about human rights.

Bob is the third executive director since the center opened on International Human Rights Day in December 2005.

After a two-year, nation-wide search that drew more than 200 applicants, the HREI’s 11-member board of directors discovered last summer they didn’t need to look far.  Their candidate was already in Coeur d’Alene.

Bob, who retired from his NIC post seven years ago, was surprised when board members asked him to apply.

Although he enjoyed playing racquetball, traveling to Mexico and other perks of retirement, he knew he needed to be of service to the task force.

He also couldn’t resist the challenge of bringing diverse groups together and leading an organization dedicated to ideals of justice and equality he espoused as an educator.

Bob finds the many facets of human rights a challenge—from the historic struggle of women and minorities for equality to the obstacles faced by seniors, people with disabilities, lesbians and gays, and others who are on the fringes of society.

“It’s about showing and teaching people how to treat one another with respect and decency,” he said.

He finds that promoting diversity and human rights may be a more difficult task in the absence of a tangible foe, such as the neo-Nazis, because some people wrongly conclude the problem of racism has been solved, he said.

Bigotry and intolerance continue to plague our community, Bob said, and there are still many who continue to be hurt by people’s ignorance and discrimination.

Once he, too, was naively unaware of the problem. Working as a stock boy during his teens in Hannibal, Mo., Bob once invited his African-American boss to meet him at the corner café.

The man, who never had a title despite his supervisory position and who was known in town only as “Gravy,” showed up that afternoon but he waited in the kitchen. Even though segregation was a fact of life for most African Americans, Bob had no inkling until then that his black friend wasn’t allowed to sit in the café with him and other whites.

This memory, along with his experience as an educator working with diverse communities, influenced his lifelong goal of bringing people together.

Born in California, Bob grew up in the Midwest, where he graduated from the community college in Burlington, Iowa, before earning a bachelor’s degree in English and history from Western Illinois University.

After working as a high school social studies and English teacher, he earned a master’s degree from Truman College in Kirksville, Mo., and then a doctoral degree from Iowa State University.

He and his wife, Donna Bennett, will celebrate their 50th anniversary this year. The couple has three grown children and four grandchildren.

A few months after celebrating his 70th birthday, Bob was at work—leading the small nonprofit that requires him not only to create educational programs, manage volunteers and do community outreach, but also to answer phones, help set up exhibits and occasionally shovel snow and clean windows.

For information, call 208-292-2359 or visit www.hrei.org.

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